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Tommy John on hard luck, pitching arms

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The peculiarity of Tommy John's White Sox career, which spanned from 1965 to 1971, caught my attention when working on John Danks' player review for White Sox Outsider 2009. Danks made 33 starts in 2008, posted a 3.32 ERA, and yet he only had 12 wins to show for it.

To get an idea of how bad Danks' luck was, I did a search on's Play Index to see which players had the fewest wins for making at least 30 starts with an ERA below 3.40. Danks was tied for second, in between two seasons by another White Sox lefty.

  1. Tommy John, 1969: 9-11, 3.25 ERA, 33 GS
  2. John Danks, 2008: 12-9, 3.32 ERA, 33 GS
  3. Tommy John, 1970: 12-17, 3.27 ERA, 37 GS

A lack of support plagued Tommy John throughout his entire career on the South Side. He went 82-80 with a 2.95 ERA in his White Sox career, and that's actually a front-loaded record:

  • 1965-66: 28-18, 2.83 ERA
  • 1967-71: 54-62, 3.00 ERA

Roland Hemond traded John after the 1971 season to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Dick Allen, in what has to be one of the fairest trades in baseball history. John finally picked up his wins, going 87-42 over six seasons with the Dodgers, with a one-year interruption for the surgery that now bears his name. Meanwhile Allen provided the draw the White Sox desperately needed to keep the franchise in Chicago.

Nowadays, John blogs about baseball and other timely sports subjects for, and he also does some scouting. He also talked to another blogger last week. John indulged me in a wide-ranging conversation, so wide-ranging in fact that I have to break this into two parts.

Today, I'll share his thoughts on situations that a couple of current White Sox starters are dealing with -- a lack of support, and an unprecedented surgery. Thursday's segment will look back on his time with the White Sox.

On pitching without support

"The way I figured it out -- and it took me a while -- all you can do is what you can do. You pitch, and you do the very best you can, and if they don't score you any runs, you can't win. If you can hold the other team down to two or three runs, and you come out with a no-decision or a loss, I just said, 'I did what I was supposed to do. I couldn't do any more.'"

"Danks, if you look at his numbers over the years, God, he's one of the better pitchers in the league."

On slow starts

"This was 1970, and I was facing the world champion Baltimore Orioles. I was 0-5, pitching on the last day of April to go 0-6 [and set or tie a major-league record]. I had some guys who were in the insurance business call me up, and they said, 'You know it's kinda like when you're in the insurance business, and you're out trying to make a sale, and nothing's happening, nothing's happening, nothing's happening.' What you've got to be saying is, everybody believes in me. My family believes in me, my teammates believe in me, my family believes in me. I just gotta go pitch the best I can, and you just let the chips fall. That was my whole mantra as I was warming up against the Orioles -- if the ballclub didn't believe in me, I wouldn't be starting at 0-5. I'd be in the bullpen."

"In fact, the next year I started out about the same way when Chuck Tanner had the ballclub, and they brought a guy out of the bullpen to take my spot in the rotation by the name of Wilbur Wood. I told Woody, 'If I hadn't been so crappy, you may have never gotten to start.' [laughs]"

(Note: John recorded a win in that start against Baltimore to finish April 1-5. Wood picked up the save.)

On the surgery

"We had no guidelines. I had another issue that really helped me when I look back on it. It was probably the thing that made the surgery successful. When I tried to throw after i'd hurt my elbow, I tried for four, five six weeks and couldn't do it. I'd kinda traumatized the ulnar nerve - you know, your crazy bone - that was the only thing holding the elbow intact, was the nerve."

"So when I started to come back after the surgery in September of '74, I had a claw hand - a simian hand. It's what monkeys have. Monkeys don't have an ulnar nerve. Because they have to hang from trees, they hang from their fingers and their thumbs, they don't work like ours do. So they went back in in December, and they took the ulnar nerve, took it out from where it was, and repositioned it in front."

On coming back

"I knew in 1975 that I was not going to pitch, so consequently, I didn't try to pitch. I just took my time. Now, the reason I say that -- if I thought there was any way I was going to pitch in 1975 and everything went perfect with the surgery, I probably would have come back too soon, hurt my elbow, and I would've been gone."

"I threw six days a week - Monday through Saturday - and I figured if God rested on Sunday, Tommy John could, too. There were days when my arm really didn't feel well, but you gotta go with it. I just threw. Maybe I didn't throw as long that day, maybe I threw less minutes, but I threw every day. The only way you can get your arm back in throwing shape is to throw a ball."


Spring training

"I'm a big, huge believer that, for guys who pitch a whole season, even if they're young, they should come home and do whatever you do, but don't throw a baseball until about four weeks before spring training."

"If you can't get your arm ready in 11 weeks [the time between pre-spring workouts and Opening Day], you're in bad shape. You can get your arm ready in 11 weeks, but these guys will start throwing in December. Then when August comes, they wonder why their fastballs are starting to slow down and their arms are starting to get tired. You can't maintain that vigorous of a throwing program for that long. You can't do it."

On long toss

"I don't believe in long throwing, and I'll tell you why. I can put a radar gun on these guys and they can throw the ball 300 feet, 400 feet, I don't care how far. The distance the ball goes doesn't make any difference. What makes the difference is how hard you throw that ball out of your hand to get it to go that for. Distance doesn't have anything to do with building arm strength. Throwing the ball hard builds arm strength."

"Somebody has sold these guys a bill of goods saying throwing long really helps you. Throwing long makes you throw hard. I can put a gun on a kid and he's going to throw the ball a long distance. Let's say he throws the ball 75 mph, and that's what it takes to get the ball to wherever he's throwing it. Well, throw 75 mph at 60 feet, 6 inches instead of throwing it 75 mph at 300 feet."

"Pitching is the only position on the diamond that does not practice its skill every day. They practice throwing the ball long, but that's not your skill. Your skill is throwing the ball from the mound over home plate to a target to a catcher to the outside corner. And the reason these guys can't throw the ball in a ballgame like that is because they never practice it."

"So instead of practicing long throwing, practice throwing as hard as you do throwing long, but throw off a mound to catcher to home plate and all of a sudden, voila -- you will be throwing the ball over home plate."